I am seriously uncomfortable talking about the topic of suicide and self-harm. But I was much more uncomfortable when I came across the news that 95 students died by suicide across England and Wales during the academic year 2017/2018. This is a shocking number. To raise awareness about this tragic reality, the University of Nottingham created a memorial to honour the memory of the students who decided to bring their life to an end. The memorial displays 95 pairs of shoes and this is part of the Suicide Awareness Week Programme organised by the Student’s Union at UoN.
Unfortunately, we live in a world saturated with preconceived notions, stereotypes and loads of toxicity. We are supposed to be engaging, chatty, always happy and follow the flow. The truth is that people struggle, and anxiety and depression are much more common than people think. A quarter of the world population suffers from depression and anxiety according to the WHO. (1) So it’s normal to feel bad, it’s okay to feel not okay, to stay home, spend time on your own and it’s okay to be yourself. Not everyone is suited to us, not everyone has to be your friends; we aren’t teenagers anymore and you don’t need to be part of a group to have an identity.
Please, do remember that you ARE NOT alone in the struggle and there is NO SHAME in feeling vulnerable!
Mental health in higher education is a much more serious problem, which came to the surface only during the last years. Students lament poor wellbeing, stress, working under enormous pressure and a total lack of work-life balance. Speaking for myself, my PhD seriously aggravated my poor mental health and I am slowly recovering from all the stress I faced during my first year which eventually resulted in failing my first year. Many students, like myself at that time, are rarely aware of all the symptoms of depression, burnouts and anxiety. Mainly because this topic is still tabu and talking openly about your struggle is seen as a bad thing.
How to recognise the symptoms of poor mental health? Sadness and a prolonged low need are the common warning alarms of depression. However, your body gives signals too and it is important to notice and be aware of them. According to the NHS, the common symptoms of depression can be classified into three categories, physical, psychological and social. (2)
- continuous low mood or sadness
- feeling hopeless and helpless
- having low self-esteem
- feeling tearful
- feeling guilt-ridden
- feeling irritable and intolerant of others
- having no motivation or interest in things
- finding it difficult to make decisions
- not getting any enjoyment out of life
- feeling anxious or worried
- having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- unexplained aches and pains
- lack of energy
- low sex drive (loss of libido)
- changes to your menstrual cycle
- disturbed sleep – for example, finding it difficult to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning
- not doing well at work
- avoiding contact with friends and taking part in fewer social activities
- neglecting your hobbies and interests
- having difficulties in your home and family life.
Body and mind work as unite, don’t ignore your physical symptoms.
Although women tend to suffer from depression more due to the neuroscience of the brain, our amygdala is more “active”, around 70% of deaths by suicide regards men. To prevent this, the University of Nottingham Sport launched a new initiative #meanshealthactive to promote wellbeing among students by getting more active. The initiative started on March the 7nd and was opened to all students who identify themselves as men. The Department of Sport will be running a series of different activities and sports help by volunteering and qualified trainers/teachers/.
Many universities offer counselling which is a free and confidential service for students and staff. The University here takes special care of their students and they also offer workshops on mindfulness for beginners. I always recommend students to familiarise with the health centre on campus and learn about the different services that the university offers to support wellbeing and mental health for students.
Talking over your struggle is so important. Do not feel afraid to be open about your problems with your friends and family members because talking is the first step in healing. Last year, I talked about my chronic depression and anxiety in an open forum. I was so scared and worried to give a wrong perception of myself. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone and above all my family. I was totally wrong. Loads of people reached out offering their help, sending me their phone numbers to talk to them any time I need someone. Above all, I found the courage to talk with my family and surprisingly my mum was the greatest support telling me that I have to do whatever the doctor and therapist tell me to.
Finally, from my own personal experience, the best piece of advice I can give to you is to make sure you heal from any emotional trauma. We feel so sorry for people who end up in hospital, have car accidents, break a leg or an arm. Emotional trauma is by no mean less painful than any physical injury. The fact that the pain is invisible does not mean that it doesn’t exist! Last semester, I had loads of struggle due to my PhD and my personal life, breaking up with my boyfriend, my dad had a cancerous tumour, my mum got a drug intoxication. It was really a lot to take for a single person in a short period of time. I decided to take a month break from my PhD and focus only on myself and my wellbeing. It was one of the best decision I made. I am so much more focused and calmer now and ready for the last stage of my PhD. I did ask my supervisors if I could take a break, they agreed. If they don’t, no worries, you do not need permission to take sick leaves. You just don’t turn up to work for seven consecutive working days and then you present a sick note (if you are an employee). If you are a student, please familiarise with the submission form for extenuating circumstances. Here the document provides by the University of Nottingham!
Heidi Gardner wrote an incredible article about breaking the stereotypes around suicide. Please do take a look at it “Making sure Depression doesn’t get in the way of Life” to find more resources and information to treat depression and anxiety.